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Numbers game: COVID-19 metrics one way DeKalb County districts aim to guide in-person learning

Chad Willis is definitely checking the numbers.

In an interview this week, the Indian Creek superintendent rattled off the latest positivity rates for the communities that make up the district.

But while positivity rates and three other categories are in the Illinois Department of Public Health metrics, Willis said there are other factors that go into determining if a school district needs to change its in-person model.

“We monitor numbers of how many have been tested and how many are confirmed,” Willis said. “We look at staff and students and see how many have it. There’s a collaboration of factors to help determine what we do, and [the IDPH metrics are] one piece of the puzzle.”

Indian Creek has returned to in-person learning for grade levels up to the eighth grade and is in a hybrid model at the high school. Larger districts in the county, Sycamore and DeKalb, are eyeing returns at the start of their second quarters in late October or early November, and district leaders say they’re informing their decisions, in part, on data reported by state and local health departments.

Tracking cases, community spread

The IDPH website includes detailed school metrics by county and calculated weekly, eyeing four specific stats for school districts to monitor – COVID-19 test positivity rates, new cases per 100,000, new cases and youth case increase. Each of the four metrics is ranked either minimal, moderate or substantial.

DeKalb County has been over the 50 per 100,000 case threshold for most of the time since early July. According to information on the county site it dropped below that threshold once, on Aug. 16. The positivity rate has only recently climbed higher than 8%, then dropped back down, although the county’s health region hit that 8% threshold and is entering stricter mitigation measures Saturday. Gatherings of more than 25 people will be prohibited, as well indoor dining at bars and restaurants.

None of those mitigations will affect schools, however, according to a release from the IDPH.

The new case count is a measure of new cases reported during a seven-day period and measure for the change from week to week for two consecutive weeks. An increase of 5% is minimal, and 20% or more is substantial.

For the week of Sept. 13, DeKalb County’s test positivity was categorized as moderate at 6.6%, and cases per 100,000 were categorized substantial at 118 per 100,000. Increases in new cases and youth cases both were minimal.

Lisa Gonzalez, DeKalb County Health Department administrator, said the department’s main role in interacting with the schools isn’t so much from the metrics standpoint, but helping them respond when there is a case. That involves contact tracing – determining where a person who’s tested positive for the viral respiratory disease has been, and who else as a result needs to quarantine – and deciphering the IDPH decision tree for symptomatic individuals.

“You have that metric data that everyone is watching, including us,” Gonzalez said. “If you have that seven-day rolling positivity hit that level over three days, we have to implement mitigation strategies. At this point, we are still developing those mitigations and strategies locally and regionally. As far as schools, we don’t really know yet.”

Willis said that as of Tuesday, there had been four cases at the district – one each at the elementary and middle schools and two at the high school.

“So far, we do not believe anyone contracted it here at school based on the four individuals,” Willis said. “They were different levels in different classrooms and not intertwined with one another. These factors are critical to me. Obviously the positivity rate comes into play, but we believe students and staff are safe as of today. We’ll monitor it as time goes on.”

DeKalb, Sycamore eye return to classrooms

As Sycamore eyes a return to the classroom in a hybrid model for Nov. 4, Superintendent Steve Wilder said at a board meeting last week that they are using a metric model that uses the four IDPH categories.

But Wilder said the final decision on switching between models based on the numbers will lie with him, with input from the board, health department and staff.

He equated it to a snow day.

“We’re not making that decision at 5 in the morning when we’re out looking at roads,” Wilder said. “There’s trend data to look at and time to make that decision.”

In using the metrics, both DeKalb and Sycamore don’t use only countywide data, but also the IDPH ZIP code data, which is available for three of the four school guideline metrics. The IDPH does not provide age group data by ZIP code, only countywide.

DeKalb is planning on a return for its kindergarten through second grade students on Oct. 26.

Interim superintendent Ray Lechner said the district is taking a slow approach in returning to the classroom.

“We had our staff back and in class, and some people said that seems strange,” Lechner said. “But no, it’s about getting into the workspace, seeing the safety protocols we have in place and getting comfortable. We can see what needs to be adjusted and do that. We had a good solid four weeks for getting ready to return.”

Certain special needs students are expected to return as soon as Oct. 12.

“We still are shooting for that,” Lechner said. “We’re looking to emphasize K-2 to start, make sure we get it down real well. We think it’s best to be successful at what we do instead of trying to get it done all at once.”

The district’s other interim superintendent, Griff Powell, said any decision to open or close schools would involve the IDPH metrics, but they would just be one part of the equation.

“I don’t think any one category would prevent us from anything, but I’m not quite sure because we haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Powell said. “Any decision we make would be made with an abundance of caution to protect the health of our staff and students.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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